Sunday, April 3, 2016

Opening Day: A Cautionary Tale

Hold on to your hat, we're on the verge of opening day of another major league baseball season, the brief time when there are no winners and no losers, just a bunch of teams and their fans ready to face a new season where anything can happen. Oh there are the predictions, my boy just read them to me in the car a few minutes ago. The team with the longest odds against them are the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that historically has been even more of a perennial loser than, ahem, the Chicago Cubs, who at four to one, are at the top of the charts to go all the way. On paper, they are the best team in baseball. After a splendid season in 2015, they have done nothing but solidify their lineup in just about every aspect.

To hear fly-by-night fans talk about the Cubs, you'd expect them to win 130 games this year and sweep through the playoffs and World Series despite having all their batters hitting from the opposite side of the plate than they normally do, just to give the other teams a chance.

Of course serious Cubs fans don't let any of that talk go to their heads. They've lived their entire lives filled with the hope that this might be the year in April, only to have that hope crushed to a pulp by June, or smashed more cruelly in rarefied seasons like last year, when (as I once put it so poetically if I do say so myself), the Wrigley Field ivy turns a lovely shade of bronze.  

The only thing having the best team on paper plus two dollars and a quarter will get you is a ride on the "L". As they say, that's why they actually play the game.

For my team, the White Sox, well the odds makers put them somewhere in the lower half of the pack, but they've made some moves of their own that should improve the team. Heck I even heard some folks predict them to win their division, a tall order considering that the two time American League champion and current World Series champs, the Kansas City Royals, come out of that division.

In other words, this season, Sox fans stand to be less disappointed come October than Cubs fans. If the Cubs don't win the 2016 World Series, (Vegas says four chances to one they won't), it will be a huge disappointment. By contrast, forty to one chances that the Sox won't win it all means all they have to do is show some improvement over last year and most fans will be pretty happy.

If I sound less enthused this opening day than in years past it's because I've come to realize my love/hate relationship with the game. In our family, baseball didn't hibernate for the winter as my son made his high school freshman team last fall and has been involved in 6am practices and after school conditioning ever since. His team's season began in earnest three weeks ago. Starting so early in Chicago means that most of the scheduled games have been rained out. Today's game was snowed out.

All that practice on top of the normal demands and rigors of high school has taken its toll. It's been hard, sometimes frustrating work and I am extremely proud of my boy in the pursuit of his dream. I've been thinking a lot about that dream for the past six or seven years, wondering especially when and how it will end. Baseball dreams after all, always end, and they never end happily. For the lucky ones, the dream fizzles out, to be replaced by some other, hopefully more attainable dream. For most serious players, the end of the dream is imposed upon them, when they find out they are not good enough to make it to the next level. Even for those who are lucky enough to make it to the highest level of the game, the big leagues, the end of the dream is still imposed upon them, either by superior competition, or that age old nemesis of every athlete, time. Yes, Joe DiMaggio did quit on his own terms, but only after his body told him he could no longer play like Joe DiMaggio. His was perhaps the happiest of baseball endings, 37 years old when he retired, a mere youngster in other walks of life, but ancient for baseball.

Kids read about the charmed lives of major league baseball players, the ungodly money, the glamour, the celebrity, and all the trappings that go along with those things. Most of all they see their heroes performing as heroes do, coming through in the clutch, winning the game and the season for their team, and watching the public adulation that follows. What kids don't realize is the higher the mountaintop climbed, the greater the fall to the ground.

With my son's dream in mind, I wrote the following piece a few years ago about one of those prodigious falls that are all too common in the great game of baseball:

On October 28, 1986, I heard the following joke:

First Person: I heard Bill Buckner attempted suicide last night.

Second Person: Really? That's terrible.

First Person: Yeah, but he let the train roll through his legs.

So you want to be a big league ball player? Well first you have to be good. Then you have to have parents or some kind of mentor willing to support your dream who will go the extra mile to play catch with you every day, teach you how to hit and throw the ball, pay for little league, then the traveling team, and be willing to get you to all the games, even if they're two or three states over.

Maybe if you're lucky, you'll make the high school team and if you're good enough, you could be the star of the team. If you're exceptional, you might be able to get a scholarship to go to college and play ball, or if you're phenomenal, you might even get noticed by a professional scout who just might sign you up for a tryout.

Beware though, there are lots of ballplayers out there who'd love to be in your position; make one slip up, and they will be in your position. But you're really good, have a terrific attitude and luck's been on your side. You've worked your butt off for years, suffering through some real asshole coaches and you've finally made it into the minor leagues. Slowly you work your way up through the ranks, schlepping yourself and your gear onto buses for endless rides to podunk towns.

Eventually you're lucky enough and good enough to get your chance at the Big Show. It certainly doesn't get any easier up there, the only exception being someone else gets to carry your gear and you travel from town to town in a plane. And oh yes, there's the money. Now, not only are lots of people hungry for your job, there are lots of others who are after your scratch as well.

Somehow, by hook or by crook, despite the injuries and the nagging pain you've been playing through for years, you built yourself a respectable career at the highest level attainable in your profession. Before you know it, you have more games behind you than in front of you and the twilight of your career is fast approaching. But you end up on a team with a shot at the Series and this will be your last chance at a ring, the dream of every kid who ever picks up a bat and a ball. That ring is so close you can taste it, you're two runs up and only one strike away.

Then things start to unravel; they tie it up but no problem, you have plenty of time to get back into the game. Next thing you know, the ball is hit to you, an easy roller to first, routine play, all you have to do is move a little to your left, pick up the ball and make an easy toss to the pitcher covering the bag, inning over. It hurts like hell but your gimpy legs get you there OK, you bend down and get into proper fielding position, glove square on the ground. Somehow the ball just seems to skip past the glove, you don't know, it all happened so fast. The ball goes between your legs and into right field, the runner scores from second, game over.

Never mind that your relief pitchers gave up two runs all on their own after two men were out in the inning with nobody on, one strike away from winning it all.

Never mind the wild pitch allowing the tying run to score that your catcher could have but didn't stop.

Never mind that the batter was running so hard down the line you might not have had a chance to get him anyway.

Never mind the team you were playing didn't win 108 games that year for nothing.

Never mind that your team had the chance to pick you up in the next game but blew a three run lead, and lost game seven of the World Series.

Never mind that your team probably wouldn't have gotten there in the first place without you.

It doesn't matter.

Despite having had a terrific career, jerks not worthy of carrying your jock strap will blame you for losing the Series, their children will taunt your children. Years later, fans of the team will have the gall to say they "forgive" you (as if there was anything to forgive), but they won't ever let go. In the end, you will go to your grave remembered as the guy who let the ball roll through his legs to end game six of the '86 Series.

Remember son, for every World Series hero, for every one Bill Mazeroski or Joe Carter, every Madison Bumgarner or Salvador Perez, there are dozens and dozens of Bill Buckners.


We've been through this before, baseball is a game designed to break your heart, and as a father, I'm just a little protective of my son.

I know, I know, this isn't the time for such talk, it's the beginning of the season when all hope... well you know the drill.

House league, baseball at its purest. I miss those days.
The truth is, the meaning of baseball at this point in my life lies entirely in my ability to share it with my son. Despite the gratification that comes with his advancing in the game,  I do miss the days when every at bat of his didn't mean the difference between getting more playing time or sitting on the bench. I miss the days when I could deep down root for his team as well as for him, as now his competition for a spot on the roster comes from his teammates, not their opponents. And I miss the days of playing catch with my son just for fun, without feeling compelled to critique his technique or remind him incessantly to listen to his coaches. I miss the days when baseball was just a game and all was right with the world.

But mostly I dread the day when his baseball dream will come to an end, as it eventually will. Only the date is uncertain. That's the day his heart will be broken.

On the bright side, when that day comes, well perhaps a little later, maybe we'll be able to fully enjoy the great game together again with no strings attached, as it was meant to be, just two gloves, a baseball, and a father and son.

Until that day comes, we'll just have to suck it up and play some hard ball.

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